UK Riots. Israel Protests
The United Kingdom and Israel are currently under the sway of massive political unrest. In both countries, the cause of this is systemic economic problems, reflected in increasing public dissatisfaction with neoliberalism, but the contrast between the nature of the unrest is striking: the UK gets riots, while Israel gets some of the most inspiring political protests in generations. Why the difference, and what lessons can be drawn from it?
Socio-economic factors alone do not provide the answer. The failure of neoliberalism justifies massive political protests but it does not justify rioting. The people of Beer-Sheva's Schunat Daled live in equally poor conditions to the people of London's Tottenham. Contrary to what Eyal Clyne intimates, however, there is little sign that Israelis will turn on one another in the way that the rioters in the UK have done. So while economic distress explains the timing of the unrest, we have to look deeper into the political cultures of both countries to answer why Britain witnesses unfocused rage while Israel sees the possible birth of a new political movement. My unfashionable explanation for the difference, having lived in both countries, is that Israeli is a nationalist society and Britain is a post-nationalist one.
Locke spoke of the nation as an extension of the family. Nationalists should not be subservient to the abstractions of the state; instead, they should create a community of brotherhood with those who share their living space. This is why nationalism should instinctively lean to the Left. No matter your level of despair, you should not use Twitter to plan ways of robbing and assaulting your brothers. When there are problems you should join force with your brothers and organise effectively, as people are trying to do in Israel, but what purpose does rioting serve? The best answer to this question has been provided by the already famous speech of the woman in Tottenham confronting her brothers, and it is revealing that in most bylines she has been described as “Black” or “West Indian”, when she is patently British.
The most obvious objection to my idealisation of Israeli brotherhood is the situation faced by Israeli-Palestinians. They face greater discrimination than most of Britain's minorities, although by listening to the grievances of those most affected by the riots, we see that the gap between the two countries on this issue is probably not as wide as some of Israel's critics would like us to believe. And it is clear that the brotherhood which has facilitated the J14 protests does not yet extend sufficiently to Israel's non-Jews. But there are hopeful signs coming out of the protests that a serious discussion is finally taking place regarding the problems faced by Israel's minorities, as well as the connections between the occupation and wider economic inequalities. Anti-Zionists are very excited about these developments, imagining them to herald the dawn of the great post-Zionist future, but they are missing the point. One can be committed both to Zionism and to ensuring full civic and material equality for minorities, as a cursory look at thinkers as diverse as Herzl and Jabotinsky reveals. The J14 protests show that Zionism is likely to help rather than hinder Israel from making progress on this issue, whereas post-nationalism would see Israel's various communities break irrevocably into a permanent state of conflict.
Of course, there's no guarantee that the J14 protests will lead to substantive change. Opinion polls suggest a major shift in the make-up of the Knesset, but getting from hundreds of thousands on the streets to fresh elections is another matter. The spokespeople for the protests have been inarticulate and slow to issue demands, and their tentativeness has been matched by the opposition parties. And, despite the huge numbers at recent demonstrations, there is a worrying sense that the peak has been reached, at least in the short-term.
This does not mean that securing change requires violence, or that Israel's inequalities justify the type of scenes we have seen in the UK. Looting multinational stores isn't a wise or radical act. Not buying from them might be, but this thought does not occur to the looters. Their actions indicate that they fundamentally agree with their ruling classes: life is only worthwhile if you own stuff. The rioters are not clamouring for social justice; they simply want their own piece of the pie. Israeli society is similarly materialistic, but its citizens support for Zionism means that communal bonds are significantly stronger than they are in the UK, hence the massive support for a more equitable order.
A good friend in the UK recently described the country as a “carcass”, and last week's events show that the vultures have already begun feasting on the bones. Until British civil society creates the kind of grass-roots unity we've seen on the streets of Israel, securing economic change will be very difficult. Those angered by Britain's economic inequalities should draw inspiration from Israel's protests, just like Israel's protesters have drawn inspiration from the Arab Spring. The key lies in creating a society where every citizen begins to feel that they are their brother's keeper, and the ideology that will facilitate this most is nationalism. Brits in despair should look to Israel for inspiration.
Alex Stein is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist. He blogs at http://falsedichotomies.com